We rolled into Wellington at about 7pm Saturday. We've only been gone two week but it feels so much longer. There's a dusting of snow and the towns x-mas lights are up. I stopped by Checkers pizza for some wings. I needed some comfort food.
The next two days we unpack and restart out lives. Everything we took with us needs to be decontaminated. We were literally wallowing in toxic goo and I don't want that stuff hanging around.
Today I went and fixed a bunch of stuff that I've been meaning to, but have successfully ignored for weeks. I repaired the barn door, fixed a gutter, a light, a door lock. It was some kind of strange compulsion. I didn't get to fix a lot down in Biloxi and New Orleans. I brought way too many tools.
If you ever want to volunteer after a disaster you really don't have to bring much besides yourself. If you are part of a large organized effort they will likely have the tools you need. So I didn't get to solder or wire or construct. I guess that's why I felt compelled to do it today, so that when I was done the house would be in slightly better shape then before. It was a result I could see.
When you gut a building, you don't really get that feeling. In fact for most of the time you are making a huge mess. You toss everything from the inside onto the treelawn. You tear out the sheetrock, framing, trim, everything. When you are done the place is empty. There is no sign of the owners life and the walls are stripped to the studs. It looks like you have actually taken a step backwards.
I tried hard to avoid cleaning houses, but I wanted to get a taste of each kind of recovery work. The first place we did was a small business, the second had already had its contents removed and the third was a Community Center. I was able to avoid seeing the remnants of someone's life. But on the last day in New Orleans we cleaned the street the community center was on. This will be the center of this neighborhood for the next year and we wanted at least the street it's on to be clean. I moved off away from the group, avoiding the waterlogged dressers and boxes of ruined books. I started to clean up trash and roof materials. But its unavoidable. There is debris everywhere. So I found myself looking at the life of a kid who 4 months ago lived here. His school I.D. showed a nice looking kid names Darence. He played some sport, basketball I think. Washed out photos showed him at someones wedding. Smiling, happy. He was working at a store nearby and was looking at attending college. They came back briefly, there were signs that they ate several Red Cross meals here, probably while trying to salvage what they could before leaving again because of Rita. Where is this kid and his family? There's a ruined car in the drive. Did they evacuate to the dome for days, waiting for water or food or some kind of help?
Some thoughts, in no particular order:
There are people down there who are in this for the long haul. They will be fighting for return rights, cleaning houses, distributing aid, giving free medical treatment for the next year at least. And without any payment of any kind. I commend these people for their dedication and am amazed at their strength.
The pole chain saw is one of the greatest inventions of the past 30 years. I am SO getting one of these.
In our time along the Gulf Coast, Rossana and I applied over 2 gallons of Purell to our bodies.
If you want to steal a car, go to Louisiana. They don't seem to have temp tags. Really. Also, these people do not know how to drive. Falling trees, disease and police brutality I can handle, driving on I-10 on the other hand is taking your life in your own hands.
When we arrived at the Hands on USA center they had us fill in a waiver. This thing was so full of scary-ass warnings that it is actually funny. Go look at it yourself.
My wife should be nominated for Sainthood.
There are so many people we met on this trip. I wish I could remember all of their names. Each one was unique, each had a different story, each had a desire to help that went beyond sending a check. They were driven, compelled. Something put them on a plane, on a bus, in a car and made them travel, sometimes across the country to do the hardest and most thankless work imaginable.
Jojo from Memphis Tennessee. This kid climbed up everything and worked without stop with the chainsaw. It was dangerous work. The nearest hospital was quite far away and I'd bet he didn't have any kind of insurance.
When James from New York told me his job was a Sommelier I had to confess that I had never heard of that occupation. It apparently means that he is an expert on wines. His job is to make sure his restaurant has the right kind of wine and that the staff know how to select the right wine for customers. He left his job and drove down to Biloxi a month ago. "My job isn't exactly making the world a better place, y'know?" I told him that a good meal with the right wine always makes people feel better. "Yep, but there are people here who aren't getting enough to eat. It's kind of a scale thing. I couldn't stand in a 5 star restaurant in New York serving $500 a bottle wine when people down here didn't have water."
Doyle is the kind of guy I would very likely disagree with politically. But he knows how to use a tractor to do any kind of job imaginable. He spent weeks down in Biloxi. Every time his tractor got a flat from the thousands of nails and screws on the ground he paid for repairs from his own pocket. I would buy that man a beer in a heartbeat. He's a reminder that you can't judge a book by its cover.
Jack came from New York. When someone asked him why he was here he said it was his hatred of George Bush that brought him here. "Everything that comes of of that mans mouth is a lie. The moment he said that he would help out and that New Orleans would get help I started making plans to come here".
Starhawk did a Wiccan purification ritual over the taps at the Convergence Center. She then backed this up with a chemical water purity test kit just to make sure. When the results came back that the water was okay, she did a short dance and left the bathroom. Then I finished shaving.
When they introduced Jenka as one of the legal action team I rolled my eyes. She stood maybe 5.1 and was maybe 90 pounds soaking wet. She was wearing an ill fitting army jump suit with angry patches and a multi colored knit cap most likely made in South America by peasant villagers paid a sustainable wage. If I were a crooked landlord and she confronted me I think I might be openly hostile. Who is this teenage hippie freaker and why the hell is she barking at me? But she's tough. And she's fearless. She strikes me as the type who has faced riot police and been arrested a few times. I felt better than she was partnered with Jeremy, who was as big as me and looked like he would mix it up if push came to shove. The flame that burns in most people is like a flare in her.
No one is sure where James came from, he looked retired. He showed up with a big blue truck that made moving trash and equipment a lot easier. There was no time when I did NOT see him tinkering with something. Lights, generators, chainsaws, cars. Given enough time he will fix anything. And he'll do it with bits stuff he found on the ground nearby.
I want to thank everyone again for helping us get to the Gulf Coast to do our small part. And our part really was small. When communities are damaged they have an ability to heal themselves. But what happens when every community is not only damaged, but destroyed? Biloxi was kicked in the teeth. New Orleans was hit by a car. You can survive getting hit by a car, but you don't just get back up.
I went to New Orleans because I wanted to see it with my own eyes. I wanted to see what could be done, what could be salvaged. I wanted to see it being fixed, being helped. I wanted to see the government response and the grassroots efforts.
The government seems almost absent in parts of New Orleans. In my time there I saw maybe 7 FEMA trailers to the dozens in Biloxi, but to be fair, where can you put a trailer when the lot is taken up by a ruined house? And how can you come back when there's no power? Federal Aid is spending billions with companies like Halliburton and yet it cannot seem to get help to individuals. The grassroots efforts have their ear to the ground, know the lay of the land and aren't in it for the money. But they are simply too few in number.
The problem really gets to you when you take it all in. You see all the different people, agencies and resources available. And then you see the destruction at all levels, and the sheer size of the affected area. You try to put the pieces together, you juggle them every which way. You try to formulate a plan. Everyone who has been there has done the same thing. From the homeowner to the Mayor to even the President. And the maddening thing is that you can't figure it out. You can't get the pieces to fit no matter how hard you try. That's the thing that makes your gut hurt.
I don't know when we'll get back to New Orleans. But we will. And you should go too. No, you don't have to go as a volunteer. You can help New Orleans by going on vacation and spending a little money there. The businesses, galleries and restaurants there are locally owned. The money stays close to home instead of going into the pockets of multinationals. And the French Quarter truly is a very cool place. And if we do go we will drive out into parts of town we would have steered way clear of before. I want to visit the free clinic in Algiers and talk with Malik. And I want to see how that Community Center is getting on. And, hell I don't drink much so maybe when I'm done sightseeing I'll swing by Common Ground and see if they need a hand. Maybe by then they will be building things. Maybe I'll bring my tools just in case.